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Last day in Prague, back to Ukraine

July 9, 2011

"Work will make you free" - sign that greeted the Jews at Terezin

On my last day in Prague, we decided to go on another excursion – the one that had eluded us two days prior – to Terezin.

Most people have not heard of Terezin.  It was built northwest of Prague in 1780 by Joseph II and at one time served as a fortress to protect Prague from invaders to the north. Joseph II named this village after his mother, Maria Teresia.

Terezin was first mentioned in a Nazi document on 10 October 1941. The plan was to bring there most of the Jews from the “Protectorate”, Germany and other western European countries; especially prominent persons, old people, or those who had served in the German Army during WW 1.

Terezin also served to camouflage the extermination of the Jews from world opinion by presenting it as a model Jewish settlement.  Hitler told people that he built the city “to protect them (the Jews) from the vagaries and stresses of the war.” When the Red Cross requested to visit Terezin, it was fully a year before they were allowed to do so, during which time the administrators created an amazing propaganda campaign – even a film – to show how the city was a “spa” type destination.

Within the camp, all manner of prohibitions and ordinances applied, and

Typical living space at Terezin.

cultural life was only permitted for a certain period of time because it could disguise the fate that had been decided for the Jews. The internees used arts as a means of coping with depression and their fears for the unknown future. They also attempted to ensure that even imprisoned children missed nothing of their education. Despite Nazi prohibition, therefore, they taught in secret, dedicating themselves with great self-sacrifice to educating the children.

Unfortunately, even as transports arrived at the ghetto, others gradually began to leave – into the unknown. From October 1942 virtually all went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most awful of the extermination camps.

In all, 63 transports left Terezín for the East, carrying a total of more than 87 000 individuals; of these, only 3800 would see liberation. The fate of the children of Terezín was equally tragic; of the 7590 youngest prisoners deported, a mere 142 survived until liberation.

Only those children who remained for the whole period at Terezín had any really chance of being saved; on the day of liberation, Terezín contained some 1600 children aged 15 or under. Their lives are reflected in verses, diaries, illegally produced magazines and thousands of drawings – often the only things that remain of them.

The dead of the Terezín Ghetto were from the start buried in individual and mass graves, from where the Jewish Cemetery developed, and in which lie some 9 000 victims from the ghetto.

At the crematorium in Terezin

The Nazis also decided to create at Terezín a camp crematorium, which came into service on September 7th 1942, and was used to cremate victims. According to surviving cremation records, some 30 000 victims were cremated here. Urns containing ashes were stored in the columbarium located in the fortress ramparts, but the Nazis were able to destroy the majority before the end of the War.

From the middle of March 1945 until the arrival of the first evacuation transports, cremations were halted; victims from all three components of the persecution were instead buried in mass graves. After the arrival of the evacuation transports at the end of April 1945, cremations began again at Terezín.

The appearance of the original cemetery for Jewish prisoners was developed architecturally and in plan after the War. The site from which the Nazis threw the ashes of martyred prisoners into the Ohře River in November 1944 has also been memorialized.

And with that sobering journey, my trip to Prague was at an end.


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